Children can build up anxious feelings over the day that emerge at night when there are fewer activities and tasks to distract them.
After settling into bed, worries can rush to the front of a child’s mind, making it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep. Nightmares may also arise, leading to even more stress and lost sleep.
Sleep disruption is a common feature of mental health problems, including anxiety, but everyone can feel the impact of stress and worry on sleep. Here are some helpful ways to cope with the challenge.
Dealing with worries at night
When your child has racing thoughts at night, here are some things you can try:
For younger children:
- Before their head hits the pillow, have your child put their worries away in a special place, like a Worry Box. Here their worries are put away for safekeeping so they can sleep easier.
- Surround your child with comfort objects, like a favourite stuffed animal
- Place a ‘worry’ stone in a small soft bag that your child can rub to soothe themselves
- Have your child use a bubble blower to blow worries away and then watch the bubbles pop.
For children and teens:
- Take a few minutes to discuss any difficult moments of the day. Before your child goes to sleep, try to resolve stresses and worries so they don’t dwell on them at night. Try not to do this immediately before bedtime in case it causes your child’s mind to start racing when they should be switching off.
- Designate a regular time to share their worries/fears/ problems each day, such as after school, or after dinner.
- Help your child transition from the day and prepare for bed. A short family walk after dinner can help everyone unwind. Read more tips here on creating calming routines and reducing screen time.
- Enjoy a fun activity together in the evening. A good laugh can be relaxing, and help send your child to bed with good thoughts and a smile.
- Keep a book by the bed so they can write or draw what they’re thinking or worrying about.
- Kick-start bedtime by encouraging them to write tomorrow’s to-do list before tucking in. This way, the next day’s activities are on paper, and out of their head, so they can sleep easier.
When your child worries about not sleeping:
To reduce bedtime struggles, rather than insisting they get to sleep, focus on showing your child how to relax and wind down. Try a few relaxation exercise together before bedtime to calm the mind and body.
Gently remind your child not to dwell on or worry about not sleeping. Worry itself makes it more likely they won’t sleep, since stress can wake their body up, preventing them from falling sleep.
For children with anxiety, sometimes setting a temporary bedtime that is a bit later, and coincides more closely with when they get drowsy, can relieve some of the anxiety associated with bedtime and falling asleep. You don’t want to let them get too tired though, as overtiredness can make it harder to get to sleep.
Dealing with nightmares and bad dreams
Nightmares are vivid, scary dreams that awaken your child. The disturbing episodes feel very real to your child, often preventing them from getting back to sleep.
Nightmares can also leave a child feeling stressed, sleepy or irritable the next day, and some children even begin refusing bedtime altogether because of them.
Though nightmares aren’t completely preventable, parents can set the stage for a peaceful night’s rest. That way, when nightmares do creep in now and again, a little comfort from you can ease your child’s mind and help get them back to sleep.
To reduce the frequency or impact of nightmares on children:
- Make sure your child is getting enough sleep. Sometimes sleep loss leads to nightmares.
- Avoid frightening images after dinner (e.g. scary stories, movies or T.V. shows).
- Keep comfort objects close by that provide your child a sense of security so they can return to sleep faster, like a favourite stuffed animal, dream catcher, or nightlight.
- Give your child tools to help manage their stress during the day, as daily and weekly stress build up and can lead to nightmares.
- Create a dream journal where your child can capture and feel some control over their dreams and memories.
If they have a nightmare:
- Encourage your child to think of a new (happy) ending to a scary dream.
- If your child gets out of bed after a nightmare, take them back to their bed and briefly comfort them there. If they want to talk about it, listen and reassure them. Keep further discussion about it for the morning, such as what the dream means and if anything is bothering them.
- Reassure your child that ‘it was only a dream’. It is often difficult for younger children to separate a nightmare from reality. Assure them that nightmares aren’t real, and can’t hurt them.
- Have your child draw a picture of the bad dream and then throw it away
Be sure to talk to your doctor if nightmares are regularly preventing your child from getting enough sleep, or if they happen along with other emotional or behavioural troubles.
Nightmares and night terrors (sleep terrors) are often confused, but they are different. A child having a sleep terror usually appears frightened or even panicked. They don’t respond to being comforted, which can be difficult to watch as a parent, but not to worry as they won’t remember it in the morning. You can visit the Sleep On It website to learn more about night terrors and what to do if your child experiences one.